Delivered in Parliament on 3 August 2021
The Motion today calls for Parliament to commend the Singapore Police Force on its 200thanniversary for keeping Singapore safe. The three Members of the House who have filed the Motion understand what police work entails – being a former prosecutor and two former police officers respectively.
There is no doubt that crime and security threats have become more complex and unconventional; the force and its officers have had to continually adapt and raise their game to be equal to these challenges. It is also not easy to manage the ever-increasing expectations of the public, who in this digital age expect quick turnaround times and instant answers from police investigators through WhatsApp. My party colleague Dennis Tan will speak more about the work of SPF in the community. That said, we should be mindful that there are other police forces working in arguably even tougher conditions – perhaps because the police are unarmed, as in the UK, or because the public has a right to carry firearms, as in the US.
In my speech today, I shall resist the temptation to reminisce about my late father’s involvement in operation in 1965 described by MP Murali Pillai earlier, where Inspector Allan Lim was fatally shot. Nor shall I dwell on my own experiences as a law enforcement officer in the 1990s. Indeed, several Members of this House are former officers
with longer and deeper insights. Instead, I will make two points – first, that we should not forget the co-equal contributions made by other agencies and second, that effective policing is not just about safety and security alone.
First, the co-equal contributions of other agencies.
At the outset, I acknowledge that it is quite natural to focus on the police as the pre-eminent law enforcement agency. However, keeping Singapore safe is also done every day by many other agencies as well as private sector organisations, whom I feel are often not acknowledged enough.
Take, for instance, the Central Narcotics Bureau. The CNB is often engaged in very high-stakes and dangerous operations, where the offences involve the death penalty, and having to battle crime syndicates with significant resources. Another example is the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, whose officers are tasked with preventing the entry of undesirable foreigners. Yet another is the Prison Service, which is charged with the safe custody of offenders, their rehabilitation and their reintegration into society. These agencies should also occupy the public mindshare as co-equal contributors to the state of Singapore’s security.
Singapore’s relatively safe living environment is an asset. It gives comfort to citizens and makes it attractive to foreigners to come here to live and work. Despite this strength, I wish to emphasise that effective policing should not be measured by only this metric of law and order. I now turn to this second point of my speech.
Second, effective policing is not just about safety and security alone.
Imagine, hypothetically, if one were to be confronted with a statistic that every arrest by law enforcement officers resulted in a conviction in court. On the one hand, a 100% success rate may seem truly impressive. But on further reflection, a reasonable person would want to drill down further into the reasons for this. Questions such as the following would be asked: how did the law enforcement officers get it right every single time? Were they so careful to only arrest suspects when the evidence was overwhelming? Did every suspect plead guilty; did nobody claim trial? If there were trials conducted, how did the judges assess the evidence? And so on.
I use this hypothetical example to illustrate that safety is not the only metric that counts. If a society were to be absolutely safe, one could go overboard and lock up as many people as possible. This is not as ridiculous as it sounds, as it is an accepted dilemma faced by governments and law enforcement all over the world.
Students of criminal justice learn very early about Herbert Packer’s Two Models of Criminal Justice developed in the 1960s – the Crime Control Model and the Due Process Model. A Crime Control Model focuses on efficiency and crime suppression, seeing crime control as more important than individual freedom. On the other hand, a Due Process model focuses on having a just and fair criminal justice system for all, and upholding Constitutional rights. Every criminal justice system worth its salt will have to find its balance between the two models. While it seems to me that many Singaporeans would prioritise crime control, fair-minded Singaporeans would also want a system where law enforcement agencies must produce evidence of a high standard, before anyone is convicted and punished.
To that end, I urge the government to look into finding the resources to enable law enforcement to perform their roles more effectively. For
today, I will take just two aspects – recording of statements, and supporting crime victims.
During the debate on the Justice Motion last November, my party colleagues and I pointed to certain aspects of the justice system where more could be done to ensure its fairness, accessibility and independence. In the main, the government did not disagree with us, stating that we were “pushing an open door”. To that end, it seems to me that some review of priorities should be considered.
For instance, on the way statements are recorded from suspects, we know that video recording is a good safeguard to ensure the statements are not coerced; it also protects officers from false accusations. We heard from the Minister then that video recording was the “gold standard” but resources were a constraint. When I suggested recording statements in other languages for suspects not fluent in English, I was told that it was not possible. But these are being done in countries, so is it a case of priorities?
As for our response towards crime victims, my assessment is that we lag behind other countries in our measures. To be fair, there have been some steps in this direction to recognise crime victims as
stakeholders. For instance, the police service pledge requires officers to give victims an interim update within 7 days of reporting a case. Where offenders are charged in court, victims may be heard in certain cases through the use of Victim Impact Statements, and there are higher chances of them receiving compensation from offenders at the time of sentencing. However, I believe these measures are not used in the vast majority of court cases.
We can do a more thorough review of how to involve the victim at critical stages of the case, such as during pre-trial hearings on bail, and explaining to them the reasons for prosecutorial decisions such as what charges are being preferred or when there is a decision not to prosecute. I had spoken about this last November and will not repeat further here. More recently, the murder that took place at River Valley High School makes me wonder whether every frontline officer has been adequately trained in the people-to-people skills necessary to handle traumatized victims and in particular, minors. Suffice to say, victims are stakeholders and their co-operation can make or break a case. To this end, we must not neglect the training of law enforcement officers in critical “soft skills” that will make them more effective.
Let me summarise. I have highlighted today that even as the police has indeed been at the frontline of keeping Singapore safe, other agencies have as well.
In addition, and more importantly, we must never think that safety is the only metric by which to judge the quality of law enforcement agencies. The need to do justice and to act fairly is equally critical. Having more inclusive case processes would also be in order.
Sir, I wish the SPF and all law enforcement agencies success. While I support the Motion, we should not think we have arrived, but strive for even higher standards.